The Humans (2021)
Written & Directed by Stephen Karam
You wouldn’t be in the wrong to walk away from The Humans feeling a bit confused about how you were supposed to feel watching this filmed stage play. The work’s creator, Stephen Karam, has imbued his movie with such a foreboding and menacing tone. This is followed by numerous jumpscares that cut through the monotonous and passive-aggressive dialogue of the characters. The story’s setting even brushes up against the premise in an interesting way: A crumbling New York apartment complex where a family meets to have Thanksgiving dinner. The audience is constantly unsettled by noises coming from neighboring apartments or figures briefly glimpsed through blurry, rain-stained windows. This is a Thanksgiving ghost story for the 21st century.
Brigid Blake (Beanie Feldstein) has invited her family to their Manhattan apartment in Chinatown to celebrate the holiday with her and her boyfriend Richard (Stephen Yeun). There are decades of tension simmering and new problems arising in everyone’s personal lives that only seem to be exacerbated by the setting. Momo (June Squibb), the elder matriarch of the clan, is lost in the final throes of Alzheimer’s, sitting quiet and passive in her wheelchair, being moved between the apartment floors via an elevator. Aimee (Amy Schumer), the eldest daughter, is struggling with a recent break-up. Deidre (Jayne Houdyshell) is drinking and eating her feelings away, deeply wounded by the criticism he overhears from her daughters while lingering in the shadowy hallways. Erik (Richard Jenkins) is the cold, distant father, unable to praise his adult children but entirely at ease expressing his discomfort over the squalor of the apartment and a multitude of boomer fears in the era of late-stage capitalism.
If you are not a fan of movies that involve lots of talking and a lot of building of tension without much release, then The Humans will likely not be for you. The film accurately captures American families’ speech and rhythm in these sorts of holiday situations without becoming melodramatic. The chemistry between everyone is beautiful, which means the emotions expressed feel genuine. There is never a moment of explosive confrontation, little snipping conversations on the side, or pieces of conversations overheard, but everyone, for the most part, keeps their true thoughts inside.
While written before 2016, The Humans feels like a perfect piece of art for the post-Trump period of America. It’s an apolitical family so mired in the drudgery of what life in that country demands of them, their humanity either muted or expressed in social performance. There is a moment of discovery when a secret is revealed related to economics, and the characters get very upset about this only to recede and realize there’s nothing they can really do. The happiest moment of the whole film comes when Momo breaks out of her trance and recites a simple prayer from her childhood, the family finding a ray of sunshine out of the past. It’s the present and the future that haunt them most dreadfully. The promises given to people like Erik and Deidre are hollow ones in the light of the 21st century; their dreams of retirement are all dried up. What does that mean for people in Brigid and Aimee’s generation? Well, Aimee has an expense account she can use at her soon-to-be former job, and Brigid spent a year composing music and wants financial help from her dad to see a therapist.
All the while, Karam lets the conversations play out while his camera slowly drifts down a dark hallway or characters are lost in a trance staring out of a window or following pipes down a dimly lit corridor. No one really seems in the moment, and Karam reflects this distracted worry with his cinematography. It’s a beautiful recreation of the feeling of holidays as an adult. You can quickly become lost in something like Thanksgiving when you are a child, caught up in the pageantry and tradition. You have a limited scope of the world and struggle. As an adult, you might enjoy the holidays, but you know that the day will end, and you’ll have to go back to the problems that were there before, problems that often undermine the very sentiments of a holiday like Thanksgiving.
The Humans is an excellent example of a production where the elements all seem to gel very well. Karam clearly enjoyed directing his actors, and they were right in sync with him. It’s certainly not a movie for every person, but if this is something in your wheelhouse, it will resonate strongly. For me, the atmosphere of the setting was a powerful thing, a haunting look at a Thanksgiving gathering in a time when the future seems bleak and unknowable.